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ABOUT WINE

Wines Without Wineries

May 02, 1991|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Some of the wine you buy today was once unloved and unwanted, a product of a "winery" or "vineyard" with neither land nor building.

Yet many of these are good wines sold at reasonable prices. These brands are owned by savvy wine people who know how to buy "bulk" wine of good quality and offer it at a reasonable price.

Bulk wine has long been a staple of the lower-priced wine market in the United States, not unlike the negociant system in France, where buyers acquire wine in tanks or barrels, bottle it with their house label and sell it at a lower price than estate-bottled wine.

In the last few years, technical improvements in wine making and grape growing have made some of this bulk wine better than ever. In part, this is due to the plethora of brands that have sprung up in California in the last few years--more than 800 at last count.

One example of the way in which too many wineries have created better bulk wine: A producer crushes grapes to make the equivalent of 10,000 cases of wine, but knows that when the wine is ready to be sold in two years, he's likely to sell only 8,000 cases. The extra 2,000 cases, about 5,000 gallons, may be very good--as good as the winery's regular wine. To sell the leftover cases, a winery typically contacts a wine broker, who specializes in such deals.

Small amounts of wine may be trucked to the buyer's winery to be blended and aged in barrels. Or it may simply be bottled as is.

Some wineries do a major portion of their business as custom-crush operations, servicing grape growers who have no winery facilities. The resulting wine is held at the winery until it is sold through the bulk market.

It's often hard to determine exactly where such a wine was made, but the label offers a clue.

If an unfamiliar wine label identifies the wine as having been "vinted and bottled by So-and-So Cellars, Geyserville, Calif.," it was probably made at Vinwood Cellars, one of the most modern custom-crush facilities and home of Gauer Estate wines.

If a wine label identifies the location as Windsor, the wine may have come from the large Rodney Strong winery in Sonoma County.

Two "wineries" that have taken a slightly different approach to lines of wines based on the bulk market are Stephen Zellerbach and Ivan Tamas. Neither brand owns a winery or vineyard land; both offer good-quality wines at moderate prices. And both do so by having a close working relationship with a winery.

Steve Mirassou, one of the partners in the Tamas operation, started as a buyer of bulk wine. But, having grown up in the business (his family has a well-known winery in San Jose), he knew that the way to assure quality was to stay in close contact with the producers of the wine.

"When I left Mirassou, I knew we could make a living buying bulk wine and bottling it," says Mirassou, "but that didn't satisfy my desire to be in the wine business. I left Mirassou because I was tired of selling wine that was lesser in quality and larger in quantity than it should have been."

Mirassou began crushing grapes in 1987. In 1989 he agreed to work closely with Wente in Livermore, using largely Livermore fruit and the Wente facility for making the wine. With Wente's talented wine maker, Willi Joslin, handling production and Mirassou giving the wines his own personal touch, they have achieved a consistency of style.

The 1989 Ivan Tamas Chardonnay ($7.50) has a lovely floral, pear and apple scent and excellent balance. The wine was barrel-fermented, but has just a trace of oak. The 1988 Cabernet ($7.50) is soft and approachable, not a long-term wine, but one with ample fruit and charm.

The Tamas line also has a first: a 1989 Trebbiano, made from the Italian grape variety that has long been grown in California as a blending grape. The wine is wonderfully floral with a melon-like quality. At $7.50 it's a lovely wine at a fair price.

Zellerbach wines are aged in oak longer than the Tamas wines, and the result is slightly richer. Zellerbach is owned by Steve Situm and Bill Baccala, who make selected lots of wines at Vinwood.

The 1989 Zellerbach Chardonnay ($8.50) has a tropical fruit aroma and is soft and a trace buttery, with good acidity. A 1988 Cabernet from Alexander Valley ($9) has an herbal-cherry aroma and a hint of dill from aging in American oak.

All four wines are good values.

To the uninitiated, the bulk wine business sounds like a way to make a fast buck. Wine in bulk often sells for $5 or so a gallon, which equates to about $1 a bottle. "I can sell it for $3 and make a lot," thinks the unwary entrepreneur. But such wines (a) must be paid for well before they will be sold; (b) must be bottled and corked, (c) stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse, (d) transported and (e) the tax on it must be paid. On top of that, the wines must be marketed and sold.

Moreover, with such powerful players in the game as Gallo, Seagram, Glen Ellen, Sebastiani, Sutter Home, Fetzer and Nestle (Beringer), the profit margins, say the experts, are tiny.

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